Category Archives: Archived

Landscape of Anguish and Palliatives: Predation, Addiction and LOL Emoticons in the Age of Late Stage Capitalism

This is a collaborative dialogue with poet, lyricist and philosopher Phil Rockstroh.

Kenn, I’ve noticed in your pieces you explore the topic of the myriad and perpetual degradations that capitalism inflicts on the powerless. Thus given the unfolding of recent events e.g., the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein, I’m curious as to your response to my (initial) take on the matter. Withal, the hyper-commodification of the bodies of young women is part and parcel of the economic dynamic of late stage capitalism whereby the earth is degraded to the point of global-wide ecocide and cities are rendered into vanilla cupcake zones of nada by hyper-gentrification.

To wit, Jeffrey Epstein is a predator and the same proclivities are evinced by his klavern of creepopathic friends e.g., Clinton, Trump, Dershowitz et. al.  Predation is the modus operandi of the ruling class. As noted, feelings of entitlement towards the bodies of young women — their beings reduced to objects of commodification — are part and parcel of a worldview which rationalises an entitlement to the (finite) resources of planet earth and the capital generated by the labor of lower economic orders. The domination-driven mindset of Jeffery Epstein was formed in and enabled by a elitist order that imprisons the economically powerless within the inescapable confines of late stage capitalism. In short, almost every human being in the world other than a (minuscule-in-number) minority of High End predators.

Why do we, the powerless, tolerate the abuse? Economic coercion. Display defiance towards the abuse and one risks being dispatched to the capitalist order’s gulag archipelago —  the capitalist version i.e., homelessness, into which precincts are cast those who cannot psychically abide, for various reasons, the predation inherent to the system. Also, the police serve as strong arm muscle for the ruling elite. The cops serve as a Praetorian guard of the predatory class.

Jeffrey Epstein’s modus operandi is emblematic of the system as a whole. The planet itself is perpetually violated and is suffering, in a manner most hideous, from the current arrangements of power. The arrest, conviction, and imprisoning of Epstein, and, if you allow me to indulge in a wish fulfilment jag of imaginative flight —  similar fates are foisted on Clinton, Trump, Dershowitz et. al., — would prove gratifying schadenfreude but unless the system that enables and greatly rewards Epstein’s predator breed is dismantled then merely one head of the hydra has been decapitated. The rapacious beast will live on until it is stabbed in its dark heart and its bones bleach in the sun of a new era.

KO: Epstein provides us a glimpse into the depravity of the ruling class, one which is obviously above the law even though he himself might now face some consequences. But the ruling class itself is full of Epstein models and prototypes. The sexual aspect of this whole thing cannot be understated either. America is a place of stark contradictions when it comes to sex and sexuality. On the one hand, there is the commodification of sex as you mention. It is everywhere. But on the other, a persistent strain of puritanism still shadows everything. And it is a place where even radical movements for human liberation are co-opted by bourgeois and reactionary institutions. Pride parades are an example of this. Along with banks and corporations, there are police contingents marching and USAF flyovers. The spirit of Stonewall be damned.

But I think the Epstein affair is emblematic of the death knell of late capitalism in many ways. Being a system designed wholly on the ruthless predation of the weak, vulnerable, or disadvantaged, capitalism cannot operate any other way. But its predation includes the living biosphere that we all depend on, so its fait accompli is written all over this as well. We can only hope that our species will not meet its end as a result. And with Trump’s unhinged saber rattling added, that hope quickly fades.

PR:  A great amount of news and pixel is expended on questions such as: Does Trump desire war or does Trump desire peace? Is Trump a racist or does he simply play one on TV with the agenda of agitating the limbic systems of his racist base? Is Trump a blithering imbecile, completely over his tangerine-tinged, combover-thatched head, or is he engaging in a cunning ploy intended to cause his opponents to underestimate him?

Fact is: Trump is about one thing and one thing only: His malignant ego being provided with perpetual narcissistic supply. Trump is a malignant narcissist, with psychopathic leanings e.g. his ungovernable impulse to grope (which he boasted about and was caught on audio tape) and his imprisoning children in concentration camps. His rival, in the last US presidential election cycle, HRC was also a narcissist with psychopathic proclivities but her persona is artic cold while Trump’s pulses with fuckwitted intemperance and cringe-inducing crassness. Hillary’s arctic aura causes people’s blood to run cold. But this is crucial: Both are human vessels that catalyse the Second Law Of Thermodynamics — a force of hypertrophy that arrives at the end of empires in the form of craven, clueless leaders.

As above, so below, in regard to the empire’s citizenry. Withal, a recent poll reveals the psychopathic tendencies of the general US public — to wit, more than a third of whom desire to have North Korea reduced to radioactive cinders by a nuclear weapons strike. (Do these vicious sub-cretins not realise such an attack would also decimate South Korea and nearby Japan and parts of China, and the radioactive emissions would travel across the planet, including reaching the US, by the conveyance of atmospheric currents?)

Flat out, creepy, huh…when, in public, a significant number of the people surrounding you, on a daily basis, are bughouse crazy. They possess the self-awareness of a bag of hair. Their regard for consequences, even catastrophic ones, is on par with that of a spree killer. These everyday psychopaths would kill millions with the casual intent of applying a LOL emoticon on social media. It causes my flesh to crawl to even write about it. Yet Beauty exists in the vastness and intricacies of creation. The dream-plangent human heart, a microcosm of the macrocosm, is redolent of both Loves fragrances and the sublimity of Horror. Poets term the phenomenon: a terrible beauty.

How does one trudge through the day and sink into restorative rest at night? There does not exist an answer on a provisional basis. Instead, become the question itself, Rainer Maria Rilke advised, and futurity will brood within you like a dreaming seed. The green fuse of the dream itself will crack open the kernel of your old understandings. Providentially, there was never an answer. The question itself only circumscribes the possibilities of life lived amid shifting, earthly criteria under a novelty-engendering sky.

KO: One thing you wrote really stands out in my mind as terrifyingly timely. “These everyday psychopaths would kill millions with the casual intent of applying a LOL emoticon on social media.” This is the landscape we are navigating these days. Where decisions that determine life and death are dominated by mercurial dopamine rewards offered by social media posts. It makes sense then that Trump, an addict if there ever was one, is so tethered to Twitter as a means of carrying out his daily duties. But the public and mass media are an equal part of this arrangement.

And so it leaves the rest of us to grapple with our existential moment. The angst and restlessness that accompanies the minutiae of our daily life and its transactions. How our dreams are interrupted by cannot be understated. It makes me think of other moments in history. Moments where the knowledge of atrocity or outright fascist brutality was widespread, but the sense of apathy or powerlessness was in equal measure.

Climate change, a biosphere in peril and under constant assault, militarism, rising fascism, and, as you make clear, the specter of nuclear annihilation. All of this convergence of very bad and very final things comes at a time when so many in the West are perpetually trapped within a prism of binary thinking. Trump is so emblematic of ‘in your face’ sadism that so many forget the cold banality of Clinton and the rest of that elite coterie of cruelty.

And yet here we are, with the newest brand of Democratic Party corporate, war-lusting clones trotted out on stage as if they were a viable alternative to the walking dumpster fire that is Trump. And that there few mass movements against the overarching system is important to note. There is only atomized outraged instead of a groundswell of rage against the entire monstrosity that is the American Empire.

PR: Late capitalists are dopamine merchants. Whether the addictive criteria involves consumerism and its even more meretricious scion, social media, the reward systems are hijacked. The dopehouse lie of the mind prevails: “Just one more hit and I’m out of here. I have this under control”…yet dawn arrives…then morning yields to afternoon…

The economic elite possess a classic form of the affliction, albeit in the cosmology of the capitalist epoch, their cupidity and avarice are deemed not only virtues but the best and only possible monads to create social constructs and to seed culture. In regard to addiction, I prefer the term from depth psychology “Complex” as opposed to “Disease.” With this caveat: Unless the latter term is appropriated, for example, in the Jungian sense i.e., the gods [i.e., higher (and lower) psychical powers] have become diseases. Among the distortions of the mind concomitant to addiction: an addict mistakes the Complex — a response that was once helpful in bestowing feelings of “ease and comfort” thereby mitigating feelings of trauma and attendant angst and despair, but has grown into a dynamic of destruction.

As the self-justifying illusions that enable the Complex intensify, the tangible world — of sensation and consequence — seem as veritable as vapour. As a rule, addiction is an attempt to apply palliative measures to psychical based wounds. Thus if day to day experiences of late capitalist modernity unfold as a landscape of angst and despair borne of the humiliations inherent to being viewed as a soulless, anonymous flesh machine who has been relegated to existing as merely an economic entity, an atomised being…alone, powerless, devoid of voice…therefore, even a contemporary, “normal,” seemingly adjusted social media habituate becomes, as is the case with all addicts, lost in a wilderness of inhuman, archetypical impulses…that possess a single-minded objective: escape overwhelming feelings of anxiety and despair by getting high, even it the sky must burn, the oceans roil with methane gases, and the biodiversity of the earth suffers the fate of a drunk’s liver and brain cells. Withal, we, in our sober moments, stand mortified as the same process is destroying the ability of the planet to sustain human life by means of capitalism inflicted, worldwide ecocide.

KO:  It’s true, there is an addiction to the screen in this age. The absence of it produces a sort of anxiety akin to withdrawal. It is of no wonder really that the orange buffoon in the Oval Office is addicted to Twitter (and most likely Aderall). But it goes to all levels. War is conducted by the Empire mostly via screens. People and entire villages are reduced to ash from the click of some armchair warrior miles away. But capitalism is essentially slavery. And it coerces its slaves with violence, fear and addiction. The portable screen is the newest manifestation of this kind of psychic tyranny.

What I’ve found fascinating is that I’ve read a few articles on how the uber wealthy are now shunning their screens. It is considered lowbrow. Elite schools are jettisoning laptops for face to face encounters. Even executives brag of how they are “inaccessible” via email or texting for much of their day. But they can afford to do this, of course. It is the working class and, to a large extent, bourgeoisie who are tethered to their screens. And I cannot help but wonder how this all plays into conformity, constant fear and the surveillance state. In one sense, we are kept up to date on our dire state, but in another we are driven to a state of constant fear by the enormity of it all and how supposedly powerless we are to fight back.

PR:  We are drawn to screen life — or a facsimile of life offered thereof — because social media evokes a simulacrum of participation mystique. We long for the musk and fury of worldly engagement — i.e., eros — with life itself. But in this atomised epoch — an existence devoid of the public square and ridden with angst involving face to face encounters (created simply by a lack of practice) — the socially isolated citizenry of the late capitalist epoch are suffering from, on both a personal and collective basis, acute eros-deficiency.  “You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.”  Eric Hoffer’s insight reveals why screen (faux) life is addictive. One feels as if human-to-human communion — a connection with the everyday sublime is imminent but the connection never arrives…yet one is compelled to double down.

Thus we have careened into a dangerous psychical terrain: the means capitalist modernity gives rise to a fascist proclivity for mind-usurping, sensation-base spectacle and concomitant immersion in the eros (including the blood-lust variety) of the mob (a palliative for the citizenry’s collective, acute eros-deficiency). Withal, the phenomenon in play at Trump rallies that are teeming with Brownshirt prototypes in crocs. This threat, seethed by Trump, is axiomatic of the form:

“I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad…” Among the manifestations of fascist signifying and modus operandi: 1) Use of police/military power to intimidate and if need be to crush opposition (as Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, in coordination with local police departments, inflicted on the Occupy Wall Street movement — to wit, US fascism is not restricted to Trump). 2) “Bikers for Trump”: Deployment of violent Brownshirt-type thuggery. 3) Worship of strength and a revulsion to perceived weakness (Trump’s display of military hardware on the Forth Of July and his time-warping, jingoist farrago of a speech. 4) Beliefs of victimisation at the hands of internal groups and violent and/or contagion-bearing outsider mandating a need for a cordon sanitaire to protect the homeland, even to the point of justifying calls and acts of violence and the existence of containment facilities caging foreign interlopers.

Fascist citadels of the mind serve as protection against internalised shame and fears of vulnerability. Fascism, always, lies coiled beneath the surface of capitalist modernity and its sham democracies. Trump is an accelerant of fascism; he is not the cause. Trump may have been born rich but he knows, deep down, the illusion of success and confidence he displays is a hollow gambit deployed to protect himself from the truth that without his father’s wealth Trump, in the best case scenario, would have risen to the level of assistant manager of an exurb Applebees, and been fired for acts of sexual harassment.

The Tangerine-tinged Tub Of Toxic Goo’s fascist tendencies are a compensation for internalised shame borne of a sense of inadequacy…that threaten to overwhelm his fragile ego structure.  In short, he is the man of the capitalist zeitgeist.

KO:  Yes, on the psychical level we all long for that connection. For participation in the theater of life. And so then Trump fits perfectly into this milieu. He is emblematic of the spectacle, albeit in a dull and brutish way. But the Trump phenomenon represents where capitalism inevitably ends up. Wealth doesn’t beget grace, or wit, or intelligence, or compassion. And we have seen similar scenarios play out over the 20th century around the world in different societies.

Capitalism’s deal with the bourgeoisie leads inevitably to some kind of fascist authoritarianism in a bid to maintain a privilege that was never fair or sustainable to begin with. It’s a sort of Faustian bargain, although in this case it is not for some increase in knowledge or even power necessarily, but for maintaining ones class status despite the inequities or outright barbarity that arrangement engenders for countless other people or for the living planet itself. And the faux opposition always serves to act as a bulwark against any meaningful political agency. It maintains the sham.

But now we are in a rather unique circumstance, and increasingly so. The planet’s systems are being rapidly degraded by the forces of capital and their military powers. And there is always the threat of nuclear annihilation via mishap or even tweet. So this is an existential moment, so to speak. And I’m not even sure how Marx or Engels would grapple with where we are at today.

PR:  Marx and Engels insight involved Industrial Age capitalism but what insights would the Marxist philosophers have posited in regard to the endless, social media-borne piffle mongering and the Medium’s panopticon-level corporate surveillance — and the attendant shallowness and fragility of the infrastructure of neoliberalism’s constructed-of eggshells economic/cultural/societal architecture? The phenomenon is mirrored in the psychical architecture of the epoxied-to-screens citizenry and their concomitant attention spans that are as tenuous as the power grid and food supply infrastructure of late capitalist modernity.

All too many have fallen prey to a con artists’ scam — a cultural lie of the mind — as durable as gossamer, as sincere as the promises of a pimp, as reliable as a blackmarket timepiece. The ground is not solid; the foundation of the system is ridden with rot; the greenhouse gas inundated waters of the earth’s oceans and seas are rising; the political class are grotesques resembling the visions — not as limned by Marx or Engels — but of Jonathan Swift, Gogol, and Otto Dix.

The question is…not how long can this go on…but how have we allowed it to go on as long as we have?

~ Kenn Orphan and Phil Rockstroh   July, 2019

Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living, now, in Munich, Germany. He may be contacted: philrockstroh.scribe@gmail.com and at FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/phil.rockstroh

Stranger Things, Stranger Times

To say we live in extraordinarily strange times is perhaps the ultimate understatement. Strange times indeed, and terrifying as well. Rising global fascism, the continued threat of nuclear war, an imperiled biosphere and a climate that is rapidly heating up. In the US it is even more apparent. There are concentration camps on the southern US border where children are being separated from their parents. Children are being forced to share lice combs and told to drink toilet water. Several have died. People arrested for leaving out water for dehydrated immigrants in the desert. Jackbooted raids are being threatened against undocumented people by President Trump as institutions like ICE reveal a staggering level of racism and blatant fascism. The orange hued megalomaniac in the Oval Office routinely tweets racist screeds or threatens the annihilation of millions of people, from Iran to North Korea. The US military is engaged in several wars of imperialism abroad. And homeless encampments in and around US cities are exploding.

But to watch American mass media one might feel they are in a parallel universe. Case in point, the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” I will confess that I do enjoy watching many series on Netflix, including this particular one, mostly for their entertainment value. And I have a bit of an addiction to pop culture. But when I watched the recent third season I was astonished by the level of blatant American propaganda on display, without even a morsel of ambiguity.

If you haven’t watched the previous seasons or this one, don’t worry. I won’t spoil the ending. But the series generally revolves around a group of kids in suburban middle America in the 1980s. They become swept up in a whirlwind of events involving the US Department of Energy, secret government experiments and a dark power that threatens to destroy everything in the world we know. The entire set and character development is steeped in 80’s kitsch, but it deserves credit for its fast pace, special effects and endearing characters; and there have been some truly remarkable moments of humanity in relation to the struggles of a young and psychokinetically talented girl named Eleven, “El” for short, in earlier seasons.

But in this last season the nefarious machinations of Department of Energy and other US agencies have been jettisoned to focus on the “evil Russians.” No, really. They actually use the term “evil Russians” several times throughout the show. That, along with “Soviet scum.” Now, anyone who has studied American mass media understands how Hollywood has long parroted the talking points of the US ruling establishment and the Pentagon. Russophobia has always been a common plotline. But this is a time where #Russiagate has flooded the consciousness of the American liberal bourgeoisie. Anyone who expresses doubts about the extent of Russian meddling in US electoral politics, even if they are staunchly opposed to the fascism of Donald Trump as I am, are often branded as “Russian bots” or on the Kremlin’s payroll. Pundits like Rachel Maddow and many in the Democratic Party establishment have devoted themselves to the #Russiagate narrative 24/7. So this is not merely done in a vacuum. It plays neatly into American reactionary politics.

In fact, many productions to this day have active CIA, DHS and DoD agents sitting on their sets in advisory roles, and US military hardware has been made readily available for those studios and productions who follow the script, so to speak. So the dialogue of Stranger Things should not come as a surprise. But there are other examples. One scientist, Alexei, expresses a desire to become an American scientist after seeing the “evil” of his government. And an enormous Soviet base, for instance, built deep in the bedrock beneath a shopping mall in the small Indiana town of Hawkins. The silliness of this aside, the fact that the USSR was at the beginning of an economic death spiral at the time is one issue, but the Soviet operatives here are given an almost supernatural physical strength in most cases.

Now of course none of this is to defend the anti-democratic leanings, human rights violations, attacks on journalists, political opponents or LGBTQ people, atrocities, militarism or war crimes of the former USSR or of the current Russian Federation under Putin; but it is to say that US propaganda is alive and well in mass media. And there is a nationalistic impulse for collective amnesia when it comes to the US role in toppling democratically elected governments (Chile, Iran, Honduras, etc), gross anti-democratic and authoritarian atrocities (the internment of Japanese Americans, Red Scare and Jim Crow for three glaring 20th century examples), or enormous war crimes (the nuking of civilians in Japan, carpet bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Libya, etc.), or crimes against humanity (see Marshall Islands nuke testing, Tuskegee experiments, COINTELPRO, etc.) committed by the American government and military. This rebranded propaganda appears to have resurfaced for a new generation.

In addition to the obvious Russophobia there is another component of the plot in Stranger Things that is striking for the current age. An evil “Mind Flayer” from the dark world of the “Upside Down” takes over the minds and wills of various townspeople. With the backdrop of a “communist menace” various conclusions can be drawn about American Red Scare and its fearmongering about collectivism.  Think: Invasion of the Body Snatchers redux. But one character, a little precocious black girl named Erica Sinclair, makes several pronouncements on the virtues of capitalism. She proclaims at one point: “know what I love more about this country? Capitalism. Do you know what capitalism means? It means this is free market system. which means people get paid for their services, depending on how valuable their contributions are.”

Now little Erica can be forgiven for her ignorance, but the reality for millions of other black kids in 1980s America (or before and since for that matter) was far less forgiving. This was an era marked by Reagan’s ruthless neoliberal order, a “trickle-down” economy that never managed to trickle any material benefits to working class black and brown people, let alone working class whites. And the show never touches on any of the rampant racism at play in the 1980s either; although it includes a palpable identity politics drenched, au courant, bourgeois-based, sexist conscious component of the #MeToo variety.

But the producers of Stranger Things, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, are the real culprits here. Their net worth is reported to be around $12 million each, so they have certainly benefited from that “free market” capitalism Erica boasts about. One wonders if they notice the mega shantytowns on their way to the studio each day. The ones that are burgeoning throughout California and around the country. I doubt many of them would share Erica’s enthusiasm for the current economic order.

The third season of Stranger Things encapsulates the angst of the American bourgeoisie today. Its appeal to a nostalgia is seen in the excess emphasis on sentimentality and kitsch; and there is a nod of acceptance of authoritarianism in the liberties taken by police chief Jim Hopper, or “Hop,” where his abuses are portrayed humorously. And this at a time where police brutality is off the charts. Its conformity is evident in the constant promotion of corporate products, consumerism and the dominant shopping mall milieu. Nationalism and jingoism are predominant with the US military and 4th of July symbolism playing a key role in the defeat of evil. And there is an ever present fear of an “other” who threatens everything America supposedly stands for: individualism, liberty and shopping, of course.

The American bourgeoisie is in an existential crisis. It is overworked, in perpetual fear of debt or bankruptcy due to healthcare costs, mortgage and rent, education and the costs of daily living. Its privileged status stands threatened by the natural trajectory of capitalism toward gross economic inequity, avarice fueled corruption, the capriciousness of a sadistic “free market,” rising fascism, militarism and an imperiled biosphere that stands to topple the entire house of cards. The so-called “opposition” to the tyrant in the White House has been playing a game of appeasement and focusing on outside “threats” like Russia, instead of tackling the real enemy: the American ruling class establishment. But mass media is incapable of reflecting this reality. To do so, it would need to examine American history accurately, honestly, and with humility, and face the truth about the past and the current untenable arrangement. And that would undoubtedly be the strangest thing of all.

 

Kenn Orphan   2019

We Know

Perhaps you can commiserate. For the past few weeks I’ve felt an aching in my chest; an angst I cannot escape. The darkening skies of an ever besieged biosphere aside, the specter of rising fascism undoubtedly looms large now, and war, a global war, now seems inevitable. It’s true that the saber rattling has been going on for some time. And the bombs have never really stopped falling. The last leader of the American Empire dropped over 26,000 of them in his last year alone.

But then, last week, the current bloated tweeting emperor called forth his bombers into the sky and, at a moment’s notice, called them back. A war that would ignite a region already smoldering from decades of imperial assaults was halted in midair. But the effect of terror had been accomplished. Billions of people now hold their breath as he casually promises to obliterate millions of people if “anything” American is harmed. Is an unmanned drone worth millions of human lives? We may find out if the Empire thinks so.

And then there are the camps. Those camps on the southern border of the Empire. It is unfathomable for any person of conscience to ignore the horror unfolding there. It requires a forfeiture of one’s soul. Children screaming for their mothers, the mothers whose arms they were ruthlessly torn from. Clothing caked with mucus. Lying on cold, concrete floors, with foil sheets as blankets. Abandoned children mothering other abandoned children. Caged. Alone. Terrified. And the guards screaming at the children who didn’t follow their instructions. Who didn’t share the lice combs they were told to share. And the children who have been adopted out to other families, or who died of exposure and preventable diseases.  Succumbing to dehydration in a harsh desert because people have been imprisoned by the Empire for leaving out water.

Queer people locked in solitary confinement, for being queer. Pregnant women shackled to beds as they give birth. And yet some liberals balk at the use of the words “concentration camps” for being too strong. History has words that describe those liberals too, and they aren’t flattering.

Far from homes ravaged by violence, these human beings seek refuge. Escaping a violence visited upon them from the same empire they now seek refuge within. And when they arrive, they are met with another kind of violence. A dehumanizing, organized terror. One which begins with being called animals, or rapists, or criminals. An infestation. Sound familiar? Chilling? It should be.

And yet many of us are still chided by conservatives and liberals alike for daring to bring up atrocities of the past. We dare not violate Godwin’s Law. That no go zone in internet chat rooms and social media sites that eschews comparisons of today’s crimes to that of Nazi Germany. But now even Godwin, the author of that meme, is having second thoughts. So with that rebuke jettisoned, my mind goes back to reading about respectable German families having picnics outside concentration camps in the 1930s. The slow churn of trains full of human cargo, stained by blood, vomit and fear, rumbling by them on fields of grass. The smoke of burning flesh punctuating the summer sky. And how those families knew. They knew. And yet they ate, and drank cold riesling, and sang familiar songs, as the fumes of death drifted by.

I often wonder what it took to develop that kind of callousness. I am wondering less and less these days. After all, these places didn’t start as death camps. “Arbeit macht frei.” Liberation was always promised. It was just not the kind anyone wanted. And steadily, with careful planning, an ideology of hate became a bureaucracy of death. The machinery of extermination that started with entire groups of people being labeled as “vermin.” A cancer. An infestation. Alien to those who supposedly belonged. And dehumanization led to mass deportation, which led to internment. And internment led to atrocity.

Atrocity is the product of apathy. The bastard child of a complacent public. It is a wickedness that builds within a society so insidiously that it becomes embedded in its daily transactions and the language itself. And it often induces a kind of paralysis. A normalcy bias. So I have also been thinking a lot about a woman I met years ago when I worked in hospice. She survived the Holocaust, but she was haunted every single day by the memory of watching her father being thrown into an open fire in front of her. He was trying to protect his young daughter from the groping hands of the SS. But her role was to be that of a “comfort woman.” And for that they ripped her up inside with a broken bottle. “You’ll never have children now,” the SS guard laughed. And he was correct.

She wasn’t Jewish. She wasn’t political. She was a child. In fact, she was German, through and through. A devout Catholic. But she and her family weren’t spared. She saw her neighbors demonized, persecuted and dragged away one by one, family by family. Frozen as the tide of terror arose around them. Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists. But then they came for her family.

Decades have passed since that time and yet more camps have come and gone around the world. More open air prisons. More mass round ups and deportations. More death squads. More killing fields. Indonesia, Chile, Congo, Guatemala, Gaza, Syria, Yemen. And in each case well meaning, respectable people have watched the horror unfold. Watched their neighbors be bombed. Watched the death squads terrorize. Some have applauded it, some have even participated in it or brought picnics to the carnage like those German families decades ago.

To be sure, there are too many killing fields to count. Too many rotting corpses. But they must be counted. Each of them. Because each one of them count. And because again, fascism rises. Out of the ashes of mountains of bodies. It rises. And the camps are back too. And so are the attack dogs. And the barbed wire. And the guards. And they are all within the empire itself.

There is a signal we are given from the blood soaked pages of history. A Cassandra ignored now as in days past. The soft, warm loam of the earth eventually gives up her dead, and they speak to us. The most powerful empire the world has ever known is now global in scale. Its belligerent and suffocating tendrils reach everywhere. And it has become the most powerful menace to all who call this planet home. It courts our extinction via the wanton destruction of the biosphere and nuclear annihilation; and its sadistic disregard for today’s immigrant children on its home soil is the same it holds for the children in Iran, or North Korea, or for all children of the future for that matter. After all, it doesn’t think of any of them as its children to begin with, and it knows no other course to take. But you and I have no excuse. Now we know.

We know.

Kenn Orphan    2019

Normalizing Atrocity

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” 
― Voltaire

This week President Trump vowed mass arrests and the removal of “millions of illegal aliens” by early next week. These proclamations have become increasingly normalized in an age where his absurdities are spouted daily, but this is the kind of rhetoric which often precedes atrocity. “Mass arrests” of millions of people is the kind of language that communicates the naked aggression of the state against the “other.” It permits a sweeping dehumanization of entire groups. That they are non-violent or paying taxes is of no consequence. They are “aliens” who must be “removed,” extracted from the so-called “legal” population by any means. In the last 20 years this has generally meant people of color, especially those with non-Anglo surnames. Yet, in response to this latest threat I saw a comment from one American liberal which read “meh, the logistics of doing something like this are enormous.” In other words, “it can’t happen here.” History begs to differ.

Thousands of socialists and leftists were marched into stadiums in Chile in the 1970s and gunned down, tortured, or disappeared in a country with a much smaller military than the US. Between 1965 and 1966, at least a million communists, or those believed to be communists, were hunted down and brutally murdered in Indonesia by rightwing death squads and the police. And millions of Jews, Roma, communists, homosexuals and the disabled were persecuted, rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the 1930s and 40s in Germany and Nazi occupied countries, where most perished at a time when many ordinary people thought “the logistics” of doing something like that were too “enormous” to be fathomed, much less carried out. And each atrocity was preceded by the rise of a pernicious fascism and the language of dehumanization by leaders.

The notion that atrocity “can’t happen here” is soundly refuted by the fact that it has happened here. And countless times. The US, a nation founded upon organized ethnic cleansing and genocide of the native population, and the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans, has also been home to more recent mass atrocities. Thousands of black and brown men and some women were lynched over the early part of the 20th century. Events organized and sanctioned by authorities, police and politicians, where popcorn, postcards and body parts were sold as souvenirs to the ghoulish onlookers. Thousands of Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in internment camps in the desert during WW2 for the sake of “national security.”

Indeed, over the 20th century the US military, energy, and intelligence agencies have been at the forefront of atrocity, conducting medical, chemical and radiation experiments on millions of unsuspecting people. Whether it was feeding radioactive food to mentally disabled children and conscientious objectors, or irradiating pregnant women, infants or prisoners, or releasing radioactive chemicals over US and Canadian cities, the US establishment has demonstrated it is quite at home in administering atrocity and then burying it all until years later.

And this is not counting the non-Americans in the Marshall Islands where the US tested its nuclear bombs. Or in Guatemala where scores were deliberately infected with syphilis as in Tuskegee, where American black men were the victims. Or the millions of deaths caused by American imperialistic wars which carpet bombed cities and villages, used napalm and Agent Orange or, more recently, the use of burning white phosphorous and cancer causing depleted uranium.  Entire regions have been devastated, scores slaughtered from American forays. But one thing has been consistent, the vast majority of the victims of American atrocities have been women, the poor, and people of color.

So to some, alarm at Trump’s threat may seem hyperbolic. Indeed, there may not be any nascent mass atrocity unfolding here at this time. Others might say he is merely removing people who are in the US illegally, or that it could simply be more distraction, a nod to his xenophobic base. And the mass deportation of immigrants is indeed nothing new with any prior administration either. Obama, the notorious drone bombing president, whistleblower attacking, “deporter in chief,” while not issuing sweeping proclamations about his intended pogroms, certainly paved the way for everything we see now.

But the language Trump uses is not insignificant. Not at all. He is signaling his willingness for carrying out massive actions and purges in society. He uses fear effectively against the most vulnerable and powerless. And even a short historical account of the American ruling establishment and its institutions reveals that it has the capacity to participate and administer the most heinous crimes against humanity that have ever been conceived. ICE is more than happy to follow his dictates, and establishment Democrats, the so-called “resistance,” have indicated time and time again that they will unite with Republicans in defending the most odious of American policies.

One thing history has proven is that mass atrocity can be committed with few people, with great efficiency at a moment’s notice, little technology, and with shocking approval or the complacence of the majority of ordinary people. But it must first be normalized. To be sure, if a people can tolerate dehumanizing language of entire groups by its leader, and the utterly sadistic policy of ripping children from the arms of their parents and putting them in cages, or pregnant women being shackled to beds, or the torture of non-violent LGBTQ and mentally ill migrants via solitary confinement for days, or militias working in tandem with government agencies to round up unarmed migrants, or a government prosecuting those who provide water and shelter to other human beings in desperate need, it is certainly capable of tolerating, or even applauding, even worse monstrous depravity. And without a doubt, we are only one absurd tweet away from that potential nightmare.

Kenn Orphan   2019

Madness and Angst at the End of Empire

“Recent Research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations.” – Jem Bendell, professor of sustainability leadership, University of Cumbria, UK

“Perseverance porn goes hand in hand with the rise of a GoFundMe economy that relies on personal narrative over collective policy, emotional appeals over baseline human rights. $930 million out of the $2 billion raised on GoFundMe since its inception in 2010 was for healthcare expenses, while an estimated 45,000 people a year die a year due to a lack of medical treatment. Meanwhile, anchors across cable news insist that single-payer healthcare is “unaffordable,” browbeating guests who support it, while populating their broadcasts with these one-off tales of people heroically scraping by.” – Adam Johnson, Media’s Grim Addiction to Perseverance Porn, (FAIR)

“The liberal class thus divides into two breakaway clans, those who limit themselves to lip-service monologues with which they publicize their sense of injustice over comfortable meals, wine glasses brandished as weapons to punctuate their outrage. Then there are the true thespians, who take to the streets, wielding placards filled with exclamations and chanting songs of resistance as their throngs progress clumsily down the avenue, thoughtfully cleared of traffic in advance by local authorities. On the one hand, gestural politics; on the other, theater.” – Jason Hirthler, The Curious Malaise of the Middle Class, (Dissident Voice)

“This present momentism appears, at least on the surface, as a therapeutic solvent for all our problems, making our present situation more bearable. But this bearability of the status quo amounts to a permanent retreat to the psychic bomb shelter of now, a kind of bury-your-head in the sand mindfulness which acts as a sanitized palliative for neoliberal subjects who have lost hope for alternatives to capitalism.” – Ronald Purser, The Faux Revolution of Mindfulness, Open Democracy, author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality

“Empires are death cults, and death cults, on a subliminal basis, long for their own demise. Paradoxically, the collective mindset of imperium, even as it thrusts across the expanse of the world, renders itself insular, cut off from culturally enhancing novelty, as all the while, the homeland descends into a psychical swamp of churning madness.” – Phil Rochstroh, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Capitalism, Counterpunch

 

In the waning days of the American Empire a sort of collective madness has seemed to take hold of its ruling class. It is perhaps most clear in the unhinged and incessant decrees of the bloated emperor via tweet. But it is also in the idiotic ramblings of his minions redefining fossil fuels as “freedom gas” or rapidly melting Arctic seas as an economic “opportunity.”  It can also be seen in the reactionary and warmongering responses of the so-called resistance in the corrupt Democratic Party establishment and corporate media regarding Russiagate. Or Bolton and Pompeo inventing evidence to justify more imperial wars just years after the disastrous assault on Iraq and during the longest ongoing US war in Afghanistan. It extends to the incredulous claims of Michele Bachmann that Trump is “godly and biblical” and televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who described his aversion to flying commercial airlines as getting in “a long tube with demons,” calling for a national day of prayer for the orange-tinted tyrant. It is truly staggering to behold.

Amidst all this madness, crimes and atrocities are being committed in broad daylight by that same ruling class both domestically and abroad. In the Middle-East the ruling class, via their corporations General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is aiding and benefiting from outright genocide in Yemen by the most brutal and criminal of America’s colonies: Saudi Arabia. Similar profits are garnished from backing the apartheid regime in Israel and the military junta in Egypt. In Brazil the ruling class has only just begun to see the dollars roll in from Bolsonaro’s further opening up of the Amazon, the planet’s proverbial lungs. In Modi’s India, they are salivating at the chance to despoil more of the sub-continents riches. And around the world corporations and the fossil fuel industry continue their mad and blind dash toward species extinction.

Back in the US police violence against people of color remains steady and the prison industry is still booming. Along the southern border, migrants from Central America are seeking legal asylum, scores of them young children. Their only “crime” is fleeing their homelands which have been ruthlessly torn up by US foreign policy for at least a century.  But they are being rounded up by militias and sent to concentration camps. LGBT and mentally ill migrants are being tortured in solitary confinement. Families are being separated, children caged, violated, dying from preventable diseases.

In the era of social media all of this information is readily available for those interested. Even those uninterested are exposed to what is happening via the ubiquitous social media newsfeed. Indeed, a subdued disquiet among the bourgeoisie has become undeniable. But endless imperialistic wars, rampant corruption, human rights abuses, waning economic advancement, and mass species extinction hasn’t yet prodded most of them from their homes to shut down the machinery of this cult of death, even though it threatens the very futures of their own children. When the bourgeoisie in the US do get out to protest the events are generally scripted, scheduled, sanctioned and televised by the establishment itself. The appropriate permits are obtained. No traffic is stopped. No building is occupied. The status quo remains intact and the necessary steam of middle-class angst is let off until the next event. In the meantime, the war, prison and surveillance industry expand, police militarization continues apace, the environment continues to be raped and pillaged, and fundamental freedoms like speech and reproductive rights are systematically dismantled. By comparison, any actual dissent is met with swift authoritarian violence by the corporate state; Standing Rock Sioux and BLM as stark examples.

Perpetually harried and fearful of losing the tenuous privilege afforded to them by the ruling class, the white middle class in the US has little time to focus on anything outside their prescribed bubble of experience. They inhabit a world constructed by the capricious and cynical designers of the free market. A place devoid of the words “ruling class,” where the mantra of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” reigns supreme in an era of neoliberal barbarism. Where even if one is working fulltime they may still not have access to basic healthcare coverage. Where they are saddled with enormous debt that can never really be paid off in anyone’s lifetime. Peering at the world through the lens of glowing, hand sized screens, connecting algorithmically to the pulse of a commercially constructed world, most essentially exist in a pixelated prison of suspended and unconnected moments, reinforced by procedural programs which have been meticulously written in the posh and sterile board rooms of Madison Avenue and in the Silicon Valley. History is extinguished here, as are agency and imagination. It is a consumerist world that conforms to the dictatorship of money.

Americans have been socially conditioned for decades to accept these contradictions of their economic, social and political arrangement. Meanwhile suicide is rampant, punctuated by mass shootings. Opioid abuse is taking many more lives. Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry has thrived off this angst, convincing millions that their psychic and social maladies are all due to a personal or chemical defect, not the system itself. That working people barely stave off homelessness and middle class families are increasingly separated from their loved ones and communities by having to travel long hours to a job (or jobs) which hardly covers daily expenses, is a struggle not considered telegenic enough, unless it is cast in the heroic light of “personal responsibility.”

Indeed, Hollywood and corporate media reinforce the mythology of American greatness while its populace becomes ever more weighted down by the late stage capitalist nightmare. Whether it be CNN or MSNBC, distraction from issues related to class or economic disenfranchisement rule the day. Russiagate, the “scary” (and non-existent) migrant caravan, or Trump’s latest outlandish or absurd tweet dominate the news cycles. Catastrophic climate change, the staggering loss of biodiversity, burgeoning suicides among youth, the elderly or veterans, the never-ending and expanding war machine of the Pentagon, growing police violence and a bursting prison industrial complex, corporate and banking corruption, increased economic disparity and hardship? Not so much.

Movies and programs about dystopia have been ubiquitous for many years now, but the factors that contribute to these apocalyptic futures have nothing to do with the actual existential threats we are now facing. Zombies and terrorists dominate the themes presented, and this reflects back on the enormous influence of the Pentagon, Department of Defense, CIA, et al. on mass media. Even video games mirror the warped and expansionist aspirations of the American establishment and its bellicose foreign policy. For decades, these agencies have sought to steer the narrative of American angst toward conformity with the capitalist status quo. And they have been largely successful thanks to many attributes of American life itself. Suburbia and automobile culture after WW 2 erased the commons to create a sort of facsimile of community, often devoid of central spaces, character or originality, and connected by ribbons of featureless highway. Vast dead spaces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

But even relatively innocuous programs and movies are divorced from lived reality. I was watching one recently at a friend’s house about a group of friends taking a trip to the wine country. With some mild and typically safe humor to garnish a few chuckles, it was rife with convention and contrivance. The most glaring thing of all, though, was the lack of any class reflected in the character’s diverse lives. All were of the American middle-class in one form or another. Some single mothers, others working highly paid jobs. But none of them facing what the majority of Americans actually face. None of them living pay check to pay check, lacking basic healthcare coverage, paying exorbitant rents or mortgages, or saddled with perpetual debt. But as long as their character’s clothing and surroundings were furnished by Zara, Williams-Sonoma and Pier One, the circumstances of reality were easily eclipsed. Forgotten.

Indeed, the Age of Trump, which is the product of decades of capitalist rot, has demonstrated that the American bourgeoisie have been largely inured to their continually degraded status. They cannot see class oppression because those words are not in the lexicon. Corporate capitalism has created an insular world of sterile detachment from the real world in which it inhabits. “Human resource” departments, situated in nearly every workplace, effectively erase class and context by enforcing optimism and encouraging a kind of self-policed dialogue. Outside this world, mass media manages “threats” by externalizing and otherizing. So little has really changed in the narrative. Once upon a time it was the communists, Jews, Khrushchev, the Vietcong, the sexually “deviant,” people of color, Russia. Now it is migrants, Muslims, Julian Assange, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, LGBTQ, people of color, Russia. All scapegoats for the country’s failures and abysmal state. All psychic projections of animus and angst for a bourgeoisie in America that never understood the machinations of its ruling class or shook itself free of the “exceptionalism” of its Calvinist puritanical roots.

But the angst of the American bourgeoisie is demonstrated more by what it doesn’t speak about than what it does. It is a disquiet which is at once terrified of the collapse that looms ahead and horrified at the idea of losing the status quo arrangement, even though that status quo is benefiting fewer and fewer people. It stands simultaneously aghast and paralyzed before the obvious madness of its rulers, and yet continually grasps at failed “lesser evilism” as a solution. And it largely still buys into the noxious mythology of it being the “greatest country on earth.” The corporate elite, having stripped down civic education over decades, robbed them of their political agency and resistance and replaced it with a sanitized history and demoralizing optimism, or “positive thinking,” which places all blame for their collective state and its inadequacies on the individual. That it has been so lauded by Wall Street should cause anyone to wonder why it has been so internalized by the disenfranchised masses.

To be sure, this arrangement is rapidly meeting its end. Banking and corporate corruption, never really having been dealt with in the last “Great Recession” or its notorious state funded “bailout,” has only become more blind and reckless. The membrane of the bubble created after that fiasco, born in avarice, is thinning in plain sight. It is about to burst again, and this time it will be far more catastrophic. The endless imperialistic wars that the US has engaged in for decades are also creating a financial strain. Coupled with climate breakdown those expensive bases of aggression around the world will begin to cost more than they bring in profit. In the US itself biblical floods are wiping clean the soil graded for agriculture throughout the Midwest and causing tremendous economic hardship for scores of rural and commercial farmers. Droughts offer a grim alternative to this increasingly chaotic climate pattern. Food prices will undoubtedly rise in the future thanks to a capitalist system which creates artificial shortages and surpluses.

Indeed, around the world the climate is shifting dramatically between drought and deluge affecting huge swaths of habitat. Already countless species have succumbed to this ramification of a warming world. But also to industrial pollution, defilement of the oceans, misuse of land and extraction of minerals and fossil fuels: the excesses of capitalism. According to a recent study, a million more species are being marched down the halls of extinction today. Trash is filling the world’s oceans, with birds, turtles and whales washing up by the thousands with bloated bellies full of plastic detritus. It’s literally raining plastic particles now in many places. And all the while the beneficiaries of this pernicious and omnicidal system are dwindling to a select few who are incapable of grasping the quietus of all life on the planet, let alone their own. But without a doubt, this small segment of society will fight ferociously for their continued privilege no matter how untenable, absurd or suicidal it is.

The concurrent madness of the ruling class and the angst of the bourgeoisie in our age isn’t anything surprising. Like the phenomenon of Trump, it has been an unholy union in the making for a long time. The product of empire itself. Social media and the death throes of capitalism have only made it more visible to the general public as of late. But it should be understood that while the ruling class are moneyed and powerful, they are not omnipotent, nor are they more intelligent than the rest of us. On the contrary, even as it sees the demise of the biosphere on which it depends, this “elite” class can do nothing else but marshal the language in an attempt to save its failing economic trajectory. Thus, it is militarizing our collective existential moment: not to save the planet, but to save capitalism itself. And it will do this by deflection, brutally punishing or even eradicating those who have the least impact: the poor, the working class, and the global south.

Under a darkening, climate changed sky, created by the avarice of a few and their ceaseless wars and atrocities, an imperiled and disappearing biosphere lies before us all. Therefore, remaining silent and accepting the status quo in the face of ruling class folly, cruelty and madness, should only be interpreted as complicity to the crime.

Kenn Orphan   2019

 

The Belligerence of Empire

“Capitalism’s gratuitous wars and sanctioned greed have jeopardized the planet and filled it with refugees. Much of the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the government of the United States. Seventeen years after invading Afghanistan, after bombing it into the ‘stone age’ with the sole aim of toppling the Taliban, the US government is back in talks with the very same Taliban. In the interim it has destroyed Iraq, Libya and Syria. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to war and sanctions, a whole region has descended into chaos, ancient cities—pounded into dust.” – Arundhati Roy

 “As naturally as the ruled always took the morality imposed upon them more seriously than did the rulers themselves, the deceived masses are today captivated by the myth of success even more than the successful are. Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done to them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities.” ― Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments 

“I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” Smedley Butler, War is a Racket

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, 31 March 1968

Empire understands nothing except ruthless expansion. It has no other raison d’etre. In the past this meant the violent acquisition of lands and territories by a militarized system where caste was very apparent and visible. But today the dealings of empire are far more duplicitous. The ruling order of this age expands empire via the acquisition of capital while using the military industrial complex to police its exploits. But there is an insidious social conditioning at work which has led the general public to where it is today, a state of “inverted totalitarianism” as political philosopher Sheldon Wolin explained. Indeed, capitalism has morphed into the unassailable religion of the age even among the working class. Its tenets are still viewed as sacrosanct.

Violence is the sole language of empire. It is this only currency it uses to enforce its precepts and edicts, both at home and abroad. Eventually this language becomes internalized within the psyche of the subjects. Social and cultural conditioning maintained through constant subtle messaging via mass media begins to mold the public will toward that of authoritarian conformity. The American Empire is emblematic of this process. There is mass compliance to the dictates of the ruling class and this occurs most often without any prompting or debate whatsoever. In this dictatorship of money the poor are looked at with ridicule and contempt, and are often punished legally for their imposed poverty.

But the social conditioning of the American public has led toward a bizarre allegiance to its ruling class oppressors. Propaganda still works here and most are still besotted with the notion of America being a bastion of “freedom and democracy.” The growing gap between the ultra-wealthy and the poor and the gutting of civil liberties are ignored. And blind devotion is especially so when it comes to US foreign policy.

Most Americans still believe they live in the greatest country on the planet. They believe the American military to be noble and that they always reluctantly go into or are forced into war. Indeed, both the Democrats and Republicans possess an uncanny ability to bridge their ideological distances when it comes to defending US militarism, the Pentagon and the war machine of imperialism. But this is tied to the defense of capitalism, the ruling class, and the ultimate reason for war: the protection of that class’s global capital investments.

The persecution of Chelsea Manning, much like the case of Julian Assange, is demonstrative of this. It is a crusade against truth tellers that has been applauded from both sides of the American establishment, liberal and conservative alike. It does not matter that she helped to expose American war crimes. On the contrary, this is seen as heresy to the Empire itself. Manning’s crime was exposing the underbelly of the beast. A war machine which targeted and killed civilians and journalists by soldiers behind a glowing screen as if they were playing a video game.

Indeed, those deadened souls pulling the virtual trigger probably thought they were playing a video game since this is how the military seduced them to serve in their ranks in the first place. A kind of hypnotic, addictive, algorithmic tyranny of sorts. It is a form of escapism that so many young Americans are enticed by given their sad prospects in a society that has denuded the commons as well as their future. That it was a war based on lies against an impoverished nation already deeply weakened from decades of American led sanctions is inconsequential. Non-American life is routinely downgraded in comparisons to subjects of the Empire, even poor subjects, via rigorous conditioning, a prerequisite of military training. Flesh, bone and blood are reduced to a two dimensional drone image. The “other,” whether they be nationals of foreign lands or migrants, are mere avatars, projections of a psychic animus which have been painted by the ruling class as “threats to the homeland.”

The guardians of this narrative, those craven generals who delight in bloody forays but who wouldn’t dare place even a toe on a real battlefield, or the grim shadowy ghouls who haunt the halls of the Pentagon, or the purulent politicians who pontificate on meaningless terms like “American exceptionalism” and the “indispensable nation,” know how dangerous Chelsea Manning is to the daily workings of the death cult that is American Empire. She stands to expose the sham for what it is. And without working class kids to act as cannon fodder to protect the wealthy’s booty abroad they would be lost.

They fear Manning’s courage because they can neither plumb its depths nor navigate its landscape. It is an alien to them. Courage to them is the kind that comes in the form of mass murderers like sniper Chris Kyle, a psychopath mercenary in loyal service to the forces of capital. He, like the other servicemen and women in the military, protected the interests of oil companies, US weapons manufacturers and building contractors in conquered territories, but he embodies Americana more than any other figure today because he carried out the orders of empire without question. He killed the so called savages who supposedly threatened the American “way of life.” That he was an invader in their country is never challenged within the empire. On the contrary, the natives are cast as the “intruders” and “insurgents” while the invading military forces are portrayed as “freedom fighters” who are “defending the homeland” and spreading “democracy.”

Today Iran and Venezuela are once again in the crosshairs of the American Empire’s belligerence. Their defiance to the dominant socioeconomic order will simply not be tolerated by the global ruling caste, represented as the unquestioned “interests” of the United States. The imposed suffering on these nations has been twisted as proof that they are now in need of American salvation in the form of even more crippling sanctions, coups, neoliberal austerity and military intervention. As the corporate vultures lie in wait for the next carcass of a society to feed upon, the hawks are busy building the case for the continuation and expansion of capitalist wars of conquest.

Bolton and Pompeo are now the equivalent of the generals who carved up Numidia for the wealthy families of ancient Rome, with Trump, the half-witted, narcissistic and cruel emperor, presiding over the whole in extremis farce. Indeed, the bloated orange Emperor issued the latest of his decrees in his usual banal fashion, via tweet:

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

One can query when Iran, or any other nation has ever “threatened” the United States, but that question will never be asked by the corporate press who are also in service to Empire. They are, in fact, its mouthpiece and advocate. The US has at least 900 military bases and colonial outposts scattered around the planet, yet this is never looked at as imperialistic in the least by the establishment, including its media. Scores of nations lie in ruins or are besieged with chaos and misery thanks to American bellicosity, from Libya to Iraq and beyond. But the US never looks back in regret at any of its multiple forays, not even a few years back.

To be sure the American Empire, which has seldom seen a year without pillage of another nation or region, is now facing its greatest nemesis. Unheeded lessons of the past have made it thoroughly inoculated to its own demise. In short, it is drunk on its hubris and unable to grapple with its inevitable descent. Climate change is ravaging the heartland with crops inundated from Iowa to Nebraska. The fire season in the west has become a never ending, year round event. Miami and much of Florida will eventually be flooded beyond economic viability, with New York, Houston and several other coastal cities to follow. How soon will troops be deployed in the heartland or on flooded, climate change ravaged streets? But alas, the American ruling class will continue to shew away the screeching canaries. They will cast the calamities and catastrophes as “opportunities” as Pompeo incredulously did in a speech about the rapidly melting Arctic.

American Empire knows no other language sans brutality, deceit and belligerence. It is rapidly militarizing our collective climate catastrophe and shoring up ways to secure its dominance and control of waning resources. As in every other war the Empire has launched, the coming ones will be drenched in lies. It will be to save the planet or the “future.” But like every other war it will be waged against the poorest of the earth, those whose carbon footprint is microscopic compared with the wealthy few. The global south whose presence is everywhere and yet rendered largely invisible. But these unheard voices are being viewed increasingly as a threat to a pure white world of plenty, and their dehumanization might undoubtedly lend itself to atrocities and genocide not ever seen before.

The American Empire, one of the shortest lived in human history, has become the biggest threat to humanity and the living biosphere itself. Its industries rape the soil and defile the water. Its military tortures and slaughters the poorest people and decimates the most vulnerable of species. And its corporate media inundates the collective psyche with propaganda and spectacle. It demolishes democratic movements at their onset and installs puppet leaders who do its bidding by starving or stealing from their own people. And it does all of this with impunity.

But like all empires it will eventually fall. Its endless and costly wars on behalf of capital investments and profiteering are contributing to that demise. After all, billions of dollars are spent to keep the bloated military industrial complex afloat in service to the ruling class while social and economic safety nets are torn to shreds. It is now building a $100 million dollar drone base in Africa and is still the owner of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal. A society can only do this for so long before it collapses, and with climate change catastrophe on the horizon this game the Empire is playing will be sure to crash big and in a global manner. We can only hope that when it does there will be something left worth salvaging from the ruins of the earth it has so brutally laid siege to.

Kenn Orphan    2019

We Are All Sandra Bland

“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” 

– Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography

 

“For it is evident that those who regard the whole earth as their future territory will stress the organ of domestic violence and will rule conquered territory with police methods and personnel rather than with the army.” 

― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism  

“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose
the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually
we must do battle where we are standing.”

― Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches  

 

This week a newly surfaced cellphone video of the arrest of Sandra Bland in July of 2015 was released to the public. Sandra took the video herself and it captures a far too familiar horror millions of people, especially the poor and people of color, endure every day in the US at the hands of the police. Stopped for failing to signal on her way to the grocery store, then brutally arrested, she was found dead only three days later in her jail cell, the apparent victim of suicide. But regardless of whether she physically hanged herself or not, her life was indeed taken by an entrenched system of white supremacy.

Sandra Bland undoubtedly understood what she was up against. She understood well the system that oppressed her. And perhaps she had understandably had enough. She asked questions about her detainment and, like anyone treated unjustly, she felt exasperated. When she was asked by the officer what was wrong she calmly explained this to no avail. When she asserted her right to smoke inside her own vehicle, and defy an unwarranted demand, she was yelled at, threatened with a taser that can be, and often is, lethal, violently thrown to the ground, and handcuffed. Her pleas for mercy and compassion were summarily ignored and ridiculed as she lay helpless on the warm, Texas grass.

Sandra Bland’s treatment is emblematic of the cruelty inherent to American society itself. A kind of sadism that permeates daily life especially in the disenfranchised precincts on the margins. There is an historical white puritanical impulse which should not be understated here either. It explains the frenzy of the lynch mobs of the past as well as the apologism for police brutality largely from the white middle class today. I saw this in the days following Sandra’s arrest and death. I see it time and time again following any incident of police malfeasance or violence. But I see it most especially when it involves the poor or people of color.

White, middle and upper class Americans, by and large, are conditioned to love and venerate their police state. In a myriad of ways it defines their national identity almost as much as the military. The police are seen as protectors of society, the supposed “thin blue line” against marauding thugs. So dissenting from this entrenched narrative is often painted as unpatriotic and even dangerously subversive. And defying often has deadly consequences. There is a mythology that reinforces all of this and it is reflected in popular culture. Hollywood perpetuates the notion that the police, prosecutors, the FBI, CIA, and other various “special agents” are simply upstanding people only interested in protecting the vulnerable and getting the “bad guy.” Corruption and abuse are almost always treated as anomalies. In this fantasy world there is no racism or class disparity that leads to crime, disenfranchisement or despair. Poverty is a footnote, if present at all. Programs and movies create a mystique around these institutions painting them with a brush of nobility, with little to no historical context whatsoever. An endless series of passion plays crudely divorced from reality.

Indeed, the bellicosity of the American Empire abroad is reflected in its domestic police forces. And they have been emboldened even more in recent years. A spate of State and Federal Supreme Court cases in the last decade have seen the courts come down almost unequivocally on the side of the police. In most states the police do not have any obligation to protect a citizen from harm. At the federal level, the Supreme Court has enshrined the right of police departments to conduct strip searches for any arrest. Statistically, there has been a sharp increase in the use of SWAT teams to address what most would consider to be non-violent drug offenses. And scores of police departments around the country have attained military hardware and tanks to carry out what appears to be a domestic war against the poor.

There is an endless list of cases like Sandra Bland and worse. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy gunned down in a park in mere seconds for playing with a toy gun. Mike Brown, shot and left out on the hot Missouri pavement for hours to die. Eric Garner, choked to death for allegedly selling cigarettes. Freddie Grey, Natasha McKenna, and Philando Castile, all are just a few names that gained national and international attention. But this racist societal framework affects poor white people as well.

Daniel Shaver was gunned down in cold blood in a hotel hallway after pleading tearfully for his life. Devon Guilford was shot to death by a state trooper for flashing his headlights in an attempt to signal the oncoming car that its bright headlights were on. Teenager Graham Dyer was killed by sadistic officers who tasered his testicles until he lost consciousness when he was handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car. And then there was Kelly Thomas, a 37 year old homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia and was brutally beaten to death by three police officers in Fullerton, California in 2011. Despite his repeated cries begging for mercy, calling out to God to save him and for his father, and apologizing to the officers over and over, they continued to beat and mock him until he was completely unrecognizable and unconscious. This can clearly be seen in video and audio surveillance as well as through numerous testimonies of eye witnesses. Despite all of this, Thomas’s killers were acquitted.

In addition to the long list of ordinary people targeted there are a myriad of ways the American police state operates. Guantanamo prisoners and scores of foreign citizens who are locked up in one of several of America’s foreign gulags count among America’s disappeared. Asylum seekers and migrant families are being separated from one another and placed in concentration camps indefinitely by the thousands.

And there are many political prisoners as well. Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal and Chelsea Manning are just three who have gained international attention. Indeed, the US is a nation that cannot handle dissent, particularly when that dissent reveals the crimes of empire and its endless wars, identifies its real maladies in economic injustice or systemic racism, or comes from the oppressed castes of society. Others who dissented in this way were also murdered for it, from Fred Hampton, to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr. It must be said then that Sandra Bland was also a Black Lives Matter activist, so her death should not be passed by simply as suicide without looking at this long and sordid history of brutal silencing, disappearing and suppression.

In truth, suicide is often the final respite of the tortured. Sometimes it is a slow death from drugs or alcohol, other times it is quick. But it is always a tragic punctuation to a lifelong litany of cruelty, dehumanization and humiliation. And for the oppressed and persecuted it often feels like the only escape. Sandra Bland was arrested for “driving while black,” but she was also brutalized because she dared to defy her dehumanization. She may have taken her life in that Texas jail cell. We may never know. But her life was most certainly cut short by an entrenched racist and oppressive system that affects people of color as well as poor whites, immigrants, Muslims, the mentally ill, LGBT, the homeless and anyone who defies their enslavement, dissents from the dominant power structure, or simply exists. And so it should be understood that under such tyranny we are all Sandra Bland.

Kenn Orphan   2019

 

To Be Hopeful in Bad Times

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.  And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” – Howard Zinn

 

Recently, I’ve been reading a few blog posts from those related in some form or another to the “environmental community” that appear to make a tiresome appeal for nihilism as a response to our dire collective condition. Some of them couch their apathy in the coded language of empathy, but it is really a thinly veiled sadism. In other words; “I feel your pain but I’m not going to do a damn thing about it. Even if I could it wouldn’t matter, and there is nothing you can do about it either.” There is also a sad kind of apologism for the world’s injustices laced in much of this nihilism, albeit in false, New Agey interpretations of Zen Buddhist principles.

One blog post I read recently said: “Whatever appears ‘wrong’ in this world, it is not the fault of evil or deranged people, or despots, or stupidity, or ‘the system’. Everyone is doing their best, the only thing they can apparently do given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and no one has agency or control over what they apparently do. Because there is no one to do anything, no agency, no wrong or right, no ‘system’, no free will, no time in which anything can be done. Just appearances, for no reason. Just wondrous expressions of everything.”

In this line of “logic” the Holocaust, apartheid, war and war crimes, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, Native American and indigenous genocide, mass graves, colonialism, imperialism, discrimination, economic oppression, willful destruction of ecological systems by corporations, animal cruelty, racism, misogyny, and other kinds of brutality are all just “wondrous expressions of everything.” And the leaders and benefactors of such atrocities were merely “doing their best.” In a time of resurgent and aggressive global fascism, this statement is beyond appalling. It is downright dangerous. Unsurprisingly, I have found that the vast majority of the people who espouse such viewpoints are generally white, male, hetero, with some economic stability, who comfortably reside in the West or global north.

The same blog lamented: “I am inspired by activists but acknowledge that all their courageous and dangerous work will ultimately be futile and fruitless.” So much for recognition of the valiant efforts of the resistance to the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or Nat Turner’s rebellion against slavers. So much for any recognition of the mass movements for women’s suffrage or LGBT rights, or that ended the Vietnam War, or Jim Crow, or segregation, or child labour. So much for solidarity with those fighting for their lives and the lives of their children and the living earth today.

Today’s brand of nihilism is married to the rise of global fascism. They feed off each other in an insidious way that neutralizes opposition and dissent. When a people are denuded of their inherent value through constant demoralizing language, dispossession from the commons, and alienation from one another they become atomized, and thus fodder for the powerful to use in whatever way they see fit. Donald Trump is emblematic of this use of language. His scapegoating of vulnerable populations, ridicule, threats, and seemingly endless mendacity have the power to reinforce a quality of nihilistic passivity. Other leaders around the world are employing similar tactics to chilling effect.

Humanity is facing enormous existential threats, from the convergence of climate change catastrophe, nuclear proliferation, militarism, the degeneration of democratic norms, entrenched economic inequity, and biospheric collapse. And we as a species are not impervious to extinction. We are, after all, simply another species on this planet. One which is responsible for its current collapsing state. But this should not indicate that we are any less important than any other species either, nor should it allow for apologism for barbarity. Nihilism reduces evil to some fictitious philosophical puzzle. It is not. Therefore we should call this kind of rebranded apathy what it is: a cop out born of privilege, apathy and complacency. And its resurgence in an age of ascendant fascism is no accident either. It explains why activists and whistleblowers are being ridiculed, harassed, persecuted, and murdered around the world in record numbers by powerful forces who feel emboldened and unrestrained.

It bears reminding that most people of conscience do not enter into activism because it’s fun or glamorous. They don’t do it because they are saintly or because they will win either. They do it because they are forced to. Because of the endless litany of injustices meted out to them or those they love. Because they are conscious of what matters. And because they have literal skin in the game. They do it when their homes are being demolished by an occupying army, or when a corporation is building a dam that threatens their way of life, or when police are gunning down their sons and daughters, or when they see animals being mercilessly slaughtered for greed or status, or  when a military is torturing or drone bombing their weddings or funerals, or when an oil company is drilling in their fishing waters, or when a forest or mountaintop they love is being denuded or removed, or when they are refused or charged for healthcare or decent housing or education, or when they are treated as less than human because of their gender, or skin colour, or religion, or physical ability, or sexuality, or when they are treated like slaves for the profit of a few.

We all feel nihilistic and misanthropic at times. Every day, in fact. I know I do. It is part of the human condition to feel that way. Sometimes it can be so overwhelming one does not know how to handle it. So we should express that frustration and despair, facing our grief honestly as a daily practice, crushing and demoralizing as it is. And we should take care of ourselves in that regard. But I remind myself that most of the world does not have the luxury to sit and pontificate on how “futile and fruitless” taking action is when their lives and the lives of those they love and the living biosphere are being threatened with immediate annihilation via organized systems of exploitation.

Those who suggest we make peace with some notion that everything, including our existence, is meaningless do not take into account that as human beings we are the ones responsible for adding meaning to it. Of course that meaning is relatively subjective in isolation. But collectively it has the agency to affect real change. Meaning is born of suffering and it can lead individuals and groups of people toward solidarity, resilience, and true transformation. It can alleviate unnecessary pain, provide a balm to the wounded, salvage sanctuaries where life can flourish, and stop imminent destruction, atrocity or even war.

Taking action is not “futile and fruitless” as those unaffected directly by injustice or oppression would suggest. And although it will not end injustice, brutality or suffering for all time, we should remember that it isn’t meant to. As Howard Zinn made clear, we possess an agency that transcends the brutality of our times. Indeed, “winning” is not essential to it, neither is achieving some fantastical notion of utopia. Our defiance to barbarism is the victory, and this is where nihilism fails on all counts.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

 

Painting is Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

Social Media and the Society of the Spectacle

“The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.” 
― 
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
― 
Edward Bernays, Propaganda

“We think we’re searching Google; Google is actually searching us. We think that these companies have privacy policies; those policies are actually surveillance policies. We’re told that if we have nothing to hide, then we have nothing to fear. The fact is, what they don’t tell us and what we are forgetting, that if you have nothing to hide, then you are nothing, because everything about us that makes us our unique identities, that gives us our individual spirit, our personality, our sense of freedom of will, freedom of action, our sense of our right to our own futures, that’s what comes from within. Those are our inner resources. That’s our private realm. And it’s intended to be private for a reason, because that is how it grows and flourishes and turns us into people who assert moral autonomy—an essential element of a flourishing, democratic society.”
― 
Shoshana Zuboff, author of Master or Slave: The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization 

“Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.” 
― 
Edward Snowden

Recently I was rereading some of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. I was reminded of how essential this work by the late French Marxist philosopher is to today’s age of social media. Debord’s understanding of how the forces of capital shape our collective experiences and thoughts speaks to our time where algorithms dominate the trajectory of the psyche against a craven backdrop of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin has described as “inverted totalitarianism.”

Every day we are bombarded with the imagery of empire and capital. It is relentless. Our minds have become both a marketplace and a commodity to be traded. And it is a lucrative industry with Facebook and Google as prime examples. Their data collection and surveillance typify a conjoining of the state and capitalist economy; and they have carved out insidious new spaces in the human brain to coerce self-imposed censorship and conformity to the prevailing consumerist global order.

This social conditioning is a process which requires mass compliance. The infamous propagandist for industry and vaunted “father of public relations” Edward Bernays understood that. It takes time to manipulate the multilayered strata of the human psyche, especially in regard to large populations of people. But history is replete with tragic examples of its successful implementation by powerful interests. Today those interests lie squarely with capital and empire; but the effects are the same, distraction, censorship, alienation, coerced, compliance with the norms of the status quo and the numbing of the critical mind.

Debord said, “Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.” This profound observation is even more important today. The state, via mass media, informs us of the villains and phantoms they believe we should fear. Other, far more destructive, deadly and oppressive threats such as the continued proliferation of nuclear arms, catastrophic climate change, collapse of ecosystems, dangers to public health from industrial pollutants, vastly unequal, racist and brutal economic and legal systems, militarism or plutocratic tyranny can then be relegated as non-issues, or at least lesser ones.

Most people on the planet will not suffer or die from a terrorist attack, but they are very likely to be severely affected by the other issues mentioned above. Imagery on portable screens that virtually everyone in the West and around the world has access to communicates messages that may speak to some of these dire or existential problems, but they do so in an abstract manner that divorces the observer from the subject.

As Debord observed, this kind of culture of spectacle informs our personal relationships as well. Whether one is “present” on social media or not has become a sort of litmus test of ones presence in life itself. “Likes” or emojis have replaced and truncated language to such an extent that now older forms of communication are often looked at with novelty, suspicion, or even disgust. What’s more is that emojis in social media, particularly Facebook, have been employed all too often as tools of ridicule or even harassment of weak or vulnerable people. But what is perhaps the most striking about the current social media age is its repetitive narrative of self-aggrandizement. One so repetitive and hypnotic that it almost appears invisible. The “selfie” and “status update” are examples of the unending drive of social media to create a false sense of self to present to the world. Of course this self must conform and be well adjusted to consumerist society in one form or another lest it be tagged for “mental health issues,” subversive thought or behavior, or simply be rendered unnoticed or unimportant by society in general.

Indeed, I am certain Debord would be horrified at the age of social media. At no other time in human history has there been a greater confluence of authoritarian dominance or social control implemented in such an intimate and ubiquitous manner. Unlike Debord’s time, social media provides a new medium to not only socially condition the masses but for the corporate state to gather what was once private information about those masses via their personally owned devices and apps.

That it masquerades as a form of democracy is equally disturbing, especially since at its core it represents the policing of thought and dampening of dissent. He wrote as if penning a prophecy: “The spectator’s consciousness, imprisoned in a flattened universe, bound by the screen of the spectacle behind which his life has been deported, knows only the fictional speakers who unilaterally surround him with their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle, in its entirety, is his “mirror image.””

This spectacle reigns supreme in today’s social media culture. It is essential to its formulation and operating guidelines. Under such a paradigm history must be sterilized of analysis and ultimately atomized into unrelated instances to make an eternal present, divorced from any transformative potential. Therefore corporations and industries which have long records of polluting the environment or lying to the public about the safety of their products can continue to expand and even be celebrated by the corporate owned media. Religious institutions with long histories of abuse, patriarchy and repression can maintain their status as trusted institutions. The military can repeat the lie over and over that it is noble despite a history drenched in the blood of well documented atrocities and ongoing crimes. The United States and many other nations can keep calling themselves democracies despite quite obvious facts that strongly refute that designation. The mere notion of revolution then is made to be farcical or even dangerous. After all, how could revolution ever be seen as necessary within a democracy?

Social media does not necessarily signal the death of democratic freedom, but in its current form and under the aegis of capital it is certainly a nail in its coffin. This is because under such circumstances it is incapable of being anything other than a means for capital accumulation for the corporate state and a platform for its narrative, and it will do this through ever more invasive, censorial and repressive means. As Edward Snowden pointed out, people are less free when they feel that they are being observed. This is especially so when the observer is the state. Several studies have indicated that there is a sharp decline in certain online searches among the general public following any indication that government agencies are logging those searches, even if those citizens have not committed any crime. And the chilling effect is not unfounded. One incident involved an innocent couple who were visited by counter-terrorism police after searching Google for pressure cookers and backpacks. Since the internet has become the world’s public library, the implications for democracy are as dire as they are clear.

Unplugging from any of this isn’t easy, nor is it necessarily virtuous, but there are ways to divest from its social control personally and collectively. There are also ways to use it which defy its dominant algorithms. Détournement, which merely means rerouting or hijacking in French, is one of those ways. This involves inverting the imagery or messages of capital and empire to illustrate and even amplify their mendacity. It has a long history of effective use in bending the dominant narrative to one which reflects reality.

All of this is not to say that technology or social media are inherently bad, but to recognize that much of it has become a vehicle for a rather pernicious authoritarianism. And its danger lies in the fallacy of its benign appearance. Whether it be Google maps or one of countless other “helpful” apps one uses on a daily basis, surveillance capital becomes a means of controlling behavior, transactions, choices, as well as determining which members of society present a threat to the order. In other words, conformity is strongly reinforced while any form of dissent is rendered dangerously subversive. But although the algorithmic maps to our collective psyche are being endlessly drawn by programmers and their corporate and state masters, we still have the agency to navigate these landscapes with our eyes open. And indeed, the best tool we possess will always be that critically informed dissent the powerful so fear the most.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)

Below are a few examples of détourned ads and media:

 

We Have Always Belonged to Her

Some have expressed dismay that there is so much grief over the loss of a building and not over the loss of nature, or the biosphere, or of human beings. But why does there need be an “either or” response? Why do some human beings feel the need to limit the scope of their grief?

The razing of a primeval forest, the violent removal of an ancient mountaintop, the despoiling of a holy river, the unnatural death of a species. All of them wound the human psyche as well, and in far greater ways. These places are not venerated or preserved by the forces of capital except as exploitable property. Like Notre Dame, they represent our collective history and future. More than Notre Dame or any other human made structure, these places are the real world that we and countless species depend on for existence. But the fact that buildings and structures are reflections of the collective human psyche itself should not be downplayed.

Some have said that Notre Dame represented colonial oppression and feudalism. But indeed, the same could be said about the Imperial Palaces of China, the monasteries of Tibet, St. Basil’s in Moscow, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Akshardham in Delhi, even the ancient ruins of the Acropolis or Teotihuacan. All of them represent some kind of oppression, caste or injustice. And of course each of them should be understood beyond mere romanticism and in this historical context. Many of the colonial structures we see today were erected on the razed temples or cities of conquered peoples and were placed there erase that peoples history. A message of ruthless and brutal imperial supremacy. But there is often a tendency to reduce the power of place, that enduring spirit of loci, to fit places and their nuanced and complex meaning into neat and tidy narratives. What is lost is ambiguity, movement, and the very weight of human history itself.

To be sure, there are no shortage of hideous human made structures, ones that stand atop nature scraped of its life, convey alienation, brutality and raw power. Shopping and strip malls are one example. They reflect the cold and ravenous narcissism and insatiable cupidity of our age. Desolate places of alienation, where mind-numbing Muzak is piped through sterile, air-conditioned, cavernous tombs. Big Box stores are another. They squat shamelessly on seas of pavement. Former wetlands, meadows and woodlands raked and drained clean of their original inhabitants. Monuments to banality and a fitting sarcophagus for capitalist consumerism.

There are more examples, from suburban sprawl to tract housing to freeway exchanges to municipal buildings devoid of character. Places that are everywhere and no where at the same time. Over time, the meaning of structures often change. Events change them. People change them. Nature changes them. But some places and structures are imbued with grace from the start. They convey both a sense of place and connection with nature and an inexplicable transcendence from the repressive systems of their times. So their destruction or desecration can understandably leave a deep psychic wound especially in a world where the wounds appear to be piling up.

Any conscious visitor to Notre Dame would have understood it to be one of those places. They would have noticed its graceful curved lines which boldly celebrated the feminine as divine. Indeed, it was built on an ancient and sacred pagan site and I cannot help but wonder if the artisans and architects reflected this either consciously or not in their work. Any visitor would have taken time to sit in its gardens which carved out a sanctuary of nature in a city bustling with noise, chaos and pollution. They would have taken refuge under the watchful gaze of more gargoyles and chimeras perched on virtually every ledge than in any Harry Potter movie. They would have marveled at the number of depictions of the Virgin Mary, a striking avatar for the pagan goddesses, and an amazing thing considering the repression of religious patriarchy elsewhere. They would have noticed its symmetry and geometry as reflections of nature and the universe or multiverse that we humans inhabit, often unconscious of it all.

So the loss of this structure is perhaps a portent of our times. A time where grace, beauty and nature itself are under perpetual siege. The flames we witnessed devouring her tender spire and arched roof are akin to the fires that are devouring our fragile biosphere. She was a refuge, now scorched. How many others await a similar fate?

It shouldn’t be too difficult to draw from the symbolism of Notre Dame’s desecration. Notre Dame, “Our Lady,” was considered the mother of God. How often is our living earth referred to as our mother? So we need not have to pare down our grief over the loss of this sacred temple. On the contrary, we should expand it to encompass the entire imperiled biosphere. The soul devoid capitalist class may have claimed her smoldering ashes as their own, as they have done with the entire planet. But they are merely pale and pitiful shadows against her walls. Notre Dame is perhaps the best human made symbol for the living earth, and she belongs to no one. On the contrary. We have always belonged to her.

Kenn Orphan   (2019)